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A tribute to Dave Brubeck

To consider the life and achievement of Dave Brubeck, and to encourage students likewise to persevere in the face of opposition (SEAL theme 3: Keep on learning (motivation)).

by James Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the life and achievement of Dave Brubeck, and to encourage students likewise to persevere in the face of opposition (SEAL theme 3: Keep on learning (motivation)).

Preparation and materials

  • Download some of Brubeck’s music – perhaps ‘Take Five’, which is his most popular work.
  • Students could lead this assembly.


  1. It is not easy to say what is the mark of greatness – what it is that that sets legendary lives above the merely successful.

    Yet there are three things that we can all agree must belong to the great: humble origins, true innovation and a lasting legacy. The American jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, who died on 5 December 2012, had all three.
  2. Brubeck was born in 1920, to a family of cattle ranchers in California.

    His mother was a gifted pianist, and she taught him to play, but he had no goals higher than working on his father’s farm. To this end, he entered the College of the Pacific to study veterinary science.

    But his heart was not in his studies, and following advice from his professors, he switched to the music programme. However, he was nearly expelled as he could not read sheet music. This he learned to do only later on in his career. He eventually graduated on the condition that he never teach piano.

    In 1942, he was drafted into the US Army. He offered to play the piano at a Red Cross show, and played so well that he was taken from combat duties and ordered to set up a band to entertain the soldiers. He created The Wolfpack, one of the US Army’s first racially integrated bands.

    It was in the army that he met his long-time collaborator, Paul Desmond. Desmond’s light and breezy saxophone style complemented the unusual time signatures and experimental musical styles of Brubeck.

    The popular, fresh and cool music produced by Brubeck and Desmond were seen as a diplomatic opportunity by the US State Department and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was sent on a tour of Europe and Asia. They faced hostility from some club owners, who objected to a racially integrated band. Back home in the US, a television concert was cancelled after it was discovered that Eugene Wright, an African-American member of the Quartet, was to be kept off-camera.
  3. It was during the tour that the group encountered local folk music and decided to incorporate it into their newest album. Time Out, released in 1959, was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies, and the singles ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ (based on Turkish folk melodies) and ‘Take Five’ became established jazz classics.

    None of the songs on the album followed traditional musical time ‘rules’ – four beats in a bar swiftly became five or nine over eight. Innovation drove the album, and was a significant factor in its success. It is an irony that jazz, often seen as an obscure genre, achieved one of its greatest successes with such a complicated album.
  4. Brubeck received many awards in his time: he is a recognized great figure in music. Like all great musicians, he deserves to be listened to with a completely open mind. It is certainly true that music has different effects on different listeners.

Time for reflection

Play ‘Take Five’.

I wonder how that music affected you?

Did knowing something of its history help you to connect with it?

I wonder if you would have the tenacity to keep attempting to play an instrument, or to develop another talent, if people were down on you as they were on Brubeck?

And how would you react if racist comments were made about a member of your group?

Today, let’s hang on to our motivation, and pray for tenacity and perseverance in the face of opposition to what we know to be right.


Play more of Brubeck’s music as the students leave.

Publication date: March 2013   (Vol.15 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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